The Skill of Our Hands (The Incrementalists)
by Steven Brust and Skyler White
Cover Artist: Trevillion / Getty Images: Design by Frost
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765382887
Date: 24 January 2017 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Skill of Our Hands is a sequel to The Incrementalists (2013). Although this book does explain who the Incrementalists are and what they do, the book does not fully stand on its own; a new reader will miss some references and reasons for characters' interactions. Interesting, the opening says that The Incrementalists was published in the book's world too, as a way of going public, although this is never mentioned in any of the scenes where they are explaining themselves to people outside their group.
The Incrementalists is a secret society who work to make the world a little better by meddling with people to advance their causes. They can't control minds but they can find people's switches--the smells, foods, music, memories--that would make people trust and believe them. They also have access to a shared unconscious--the Garden--which stores their memories and also allows them to communicate with each other. Also, when an Incrementalist dies their personality is stored in the Garden and can be spiked into another person (called a Second). Usually this leads to the Incrementalist being reborn in a new body with just a few new traits from the Second, although sometimes the new body's personality can dominate or cause some blending of the two.
The Skill of Our Hands opens with the murder of Phil, the oldest of the Incrementalists, who has maintained his personality and memories for over 2,000 years. So, most of the plot is driven by the effort of other Incrementalists, especially Ren, a new Incrementalist who had become Phil's lover, to find an appropriate Second for Phil to incarnate into. At the same time, they work to solve the mystery of Phil's murder. Because of his age, Phil is the leader of Incrementalists, to the extent they have one, so his death puts the others off balance and contributes to their rush to find him a new body.
For most of the book the present-day sequences alternate with Phil's memory of Illinois in 1856 when Phil, then known as Carter, tried to prevent John Brown's slave revolt, fearing that it would set back the Abolitionist movement. The book also includes brief interruptions by Oskar, another strong personality among the Incrementalists. Sometimes these interruptions comment on the action or explain concepts, as if he were making notes in someone else's manuscript.
The Incrementalists find out that Phil was trying to reverse SB 1070, the Arizona law that requires police to determine the immigration status of anyone arrested or suspected of being an illegal immigrant. But the police, who have become increasingly militarized, suspect Phil of leading a harassment campaign against them. Meanwhile, the Incrementalists, looking for a new body for Phil in which he could continue his work, stumble onto the real leaders of the campaign.
The Skill of Our Hands skirts the boundary between science fiction and fantasy. There's no explanation for the Incrementalists' abilities which would argue for a fantasy classification. But the way the powers are handled in the book seems more like science fiction (or the type of logical magic pioneered by Unknown magazine in the Golden Age).
Although part of a series with continuing characters, The Skill of Our Hands, resolves the main plot threads. The book has a real ending, not a cliffhanger, although there's certainly room for many more adventures.
Readers looking for a modern day version of Brust's Vlad Taltos series will be disappointed. Brust adjusts his narrative style to fit the work, whether it be the short staccato noir of the Taltos books or the elaborate, mock 19th century ornate prose of his Phoenix Guards books. Here, he and his collaborator Skyler White juggle multiple characters, time periods, and plots so choosing a plain writing style in the face of this complexity seems a wise move.
Anyone who enjoys books about conspiracies and secret societies will love the Incrementalists series. So would readers who like characters with low-level special powers, working in secret. They’re not the Justice League, but they are trying to make the world better incrementally.